Monday, March 19, 2012

Books: Words, words, mere words?

Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart.
~ William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida. Act V, scene iii
Whether spoken or printed, words are ultimately, only representations, not the things themselves; or words are symbols - representations of ideas and subject to definition, interpretation, redefinition, and misinterpretation.  Yet they are the primary means by which we communicate our thoughts and experiences, and how we express our deepest values and beliefs.  Hence the two questions raised at the end of my last post:
What is the best way to deal with a discarded book?  For sacred texts, the question is even more complicated:  How do we dispose of this sacred text while respecting its content and traditions? (Beside Strange Waters, Mar. 8, 2012)
This is obviously a problem for many people and institutions.  A Google search for "how to get rid of books" will yield "about 139,000,000 results," including:
"How to Get Rid of Old Books" at WikiHow
"New Ways to Do It Make Giving Away Books a Bit Less Painful" (New York Times 2007)
"Breaking the Sentimental Attachment to Books" from
One thing these websites have in common is the idea that books should be shared, sold, or given away; as a last resort, damaged books should be recycled.  Nobody advocates the burning of books.

For an excellent overview of the negative connotations of book burning, see the Wikipedia article on "Book burning."

Book burning, in general, is bad!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The last good-bye (a respectful farewell to secular books as well as the Bible and the Quran)

These two questions haunt university libraries, famous writers and bibliophiles of all ages:

What do you do with too many books?

What do you do with a book that has become too damaged to use?

One abstract writer summed up the problem beautifully:
There is an inherent tension in most literate cultures between the idea of a book or enduring text on the one hand and the possibility of its disposal or destruction on the other. Disposing of books transgresses inhibitions reinforced by family, school, media, and government. The concern for book preservation involves respect for culture(s), veneration of traditions, and, at its root, the preservation of cultural values (Abstract: "Disposing of Non-Disposable Texts").
Even if we are disposing of a secular text, one without the weight of history and sacred tradition, educated and intelligent people find it difficult to destroy books.  Ray Bradbury's anti-Utopian novel Farenheit 451 is set in a future uncannily like our present, where people are literate, but read only non-fiction; choose shallow, interactive entertainment over reading; have lost connection and empathy; and whose government routinely burns books and kills thinkers.  We instinctively know that, when we lose books, we lose ourselves.

Nevertheless, at some point, even the most beloved books will become too damaged to repair or keep, and then we must face the hard question:  What is the best way to deal with a discarded book?  For sacred texts, the question is even more complicated:  How do we dispose of this sacred text while respecting its content and traditions?

Quotes from Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (just because I love books)

Works Cited
"Abstract: Disposing OfNon-Disposable Texts." Syracuse University Library. Web. 8 Mar. 2012. <>.
Citation for actual book (not the abstract above): James W. Watts, “Disposing of Non-Disposable Texts,” in The Death of Sacred Texts: Ritual Disposal and Renovation of Texts in the World Religions, ed. Kristina Myrvold. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010, pp. 147-59.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How should one show respect for the Quran?

To comprehend the outrage expressed by so many Muslims when the Quran is burned, we must first understand how Muslims see the Quran (or Koran).  First and foremost, it is sacred and therefore must be treated with respect:
The Qur'an is treated with immense respect by Muslims because it is the sacred word of God.

While the Qur'an is recited aloud, Muslims should behave with reverence and refrain from speaking, eating or drinking, or making distracting noise (BBC Religions, Islam: The Quran).
Not only must the Quran be respected when it is read or recited, there is a protocol for handling the book itself.
  • To touch the Quran while in an impure state shows disrespect for this holy book. Showing respect would include bathing before reading, washing one's hands, or (if a woman is menstruating or a person is ritually unclean) wearing gloves or not touching the Quran at all.
  • "Not having sexual relation in an area where the Quran is. If this must happen then one should cover the Quran. (Remember, this is a book which is a miracle, filled with light and spirituality) and Allah’s sacred and greatest words which were sent by the pure angels to the blessed Prophet (SA)."
  • "Out of great love and respect, one should not put other books upon it."
  • "One should not turn the pages of the Quran with saliva on his fingers" (Tafseer Ruhal Ma’ani vol.14 pg.155).
According to some scholars, non-Muslims should not even be permitted to touch a Quran written or printed in Arabic; rather, non-Muslims should be given a translation to help them in their search for understanding:
"It is not permitted for a non-Muslim to touch the Mus-haf (the Arabic text of the Quran) and he should not be allowed to do so even with the purpose of reading it in order to embrace Islam" (Giving Quran to non-Muslim, Islamweb).
In addition to being handled with respect, a Quran must also be stored respectfully.
Muslims never place the Qur'an on the floor, and many try to ensure it is kept higher than other books (E.g. on the top shelf of a bookcase). This would especially be the case with a copy of the Qur'an written in Arabic (The Qur'an: Key facts).
In the UK, libraries have responded to Muslim complaints by re-shelving the Quran and other books on the highest shelves:
Librarians are being told to move the Bible to the top shelf to avoid giving offence to followers of Islam.
Muslims have complained of finding the Koran on lower shelves, saying it should be put above commonplace things (Daily Mail).
Other sacred texts, such as the Bible, are also accorded great respect by Muslims.
Jesus Christ and mother Mary are considered holy and highly revered by every Muslim.... [Islam]  is a universal faith stemming from the same origins of the Judeo-Christian faith which along with Islam are recognized as Abrahamic religions. so, burning the Quran would be like consequently throwing the Bible and Torah in the same bonfire.

This is mainly why Muslims cannot retaliate against burning al Quran by burning any copy of the Bible because Islam decrees that Muslims should respect and honor the Bible and Torah as well (Dr. Ashraf Ezzat).
To summarize:  while many Americans tend to treat books as commonplace objects and have little or no understanding of the sacred, Muslims view the Quran, the Torah and the Bible as holy texts which must be treated with the utmost respect.  While these books are in usable condition, they are revered.  It is only logical that, when the texts are no longer usable, they are disposed of in a reverent and respectful manner and absolutely never burned with trash at the dump.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Quran burning and the U.S. military - a tableau of crimes & misfortunes?

Indeed, history is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes - Voltaire.

“What experience and history teach is this - that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it" - Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

The latest "deeply unfortunate incident" in Afghanistan is the burning of Korans, or Qurans, at an American air base.  The ensuing violence has left an astonishing number of people dead or wounded.

Dead and wounded (an incomplete list):
7 dead, dozens wounded (2/22/2012)
2 American advisors dead (2/25/2012)
2 Afghans dead, 7 international troops wounded (2/26/2012)
9 die in suicide "revenge" bombing of Jalalabad Airport (2/27/2012)

This violent response has, I think, mystified the average American.  Why are Muslims so angry over the burning of books?  And, perhaps more importantly, how should we as a nation and individuals, respond to their anger?

Over the next few days, I will attempt to answer these questions.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Doing justice - to the text and to real human beings

Note:  I wrote this before the recent Koran-burning incident, and I want to preface this by saying that I don't want to offend anybody.  However, the incident recounted below has bothered me for several years, and I think the underlying principle is even more pertinent now.  TRUE JUSTICE DOES NOT PUNISH ONE INDIVIDUAL FOR ANOTHER PERSON'S CRIMES, whether that "justice" is  killing American officers or raping a Pakistani woman as retribution for acts they personally did not commit.

If you are offended by my words, I hope you respond with words and not violence!

On a practical level, if we spend too much time dealing with dissonance and ambivalence, we are paralyzed by doubt and indecision, and become less effective and less efficient.  It is possible to think too much.

Thus it's not an entirely bad thing to ignore or reject a statement that sounds too weird, wacky or just plain dumb.  It's hard get through our busy days without dissecting every advertisement, news sound byte,  op-ed article, and friends' conversations. 

Nevertheless, intellectual rigor, accurate textual interpretation and good critical thinking skills are especially important in the areas of religion and morality, because people are willing to lay down their lives, or to kill, for their religious beliefs.  Less dramatically, our beliefs influence our legal systems and corporate behavior; determine social norms; and guide or control our economic structures.  If we "get it wrong," there are long-lasting consequences for society and for the individual.

For instance, consider the debate over women's rights in the Muslim world.  In 2002, a Pakistan woman known as Mukhtar Mai or Mukhtar Bibi was gang-raped as punishment for her 12-year-old brother's alleged misconduct.  Village elders not only sanctioned this rape; they ordered it.  Mukhtar Bibi risked her life by reporting the rape and attempting to bring her attackers to justice, yet by 2011, Pakistan's Supreme Court had released all but one of the rapists.

Other, more moderate Muslims condemn the actions of the village elders and the rapists.  They do not believe that a woman should be raped, beaten, or imprisoned as the result of another person's actions, and that women have some, or even equal, rights.  Same religious texts, but different interpretations.

Similarly, in Christianity, there are horrific episodes throughout history, from the Crusades and the Inquisition to the Salem witch trials and beyond.  Millions have suffered as a result of religious texts interpreted in a manner generally be considered false today.

How can we prevent these injustices?  Only by humbly interrogating the text and questioning interpretations while extending grace to those around us.

(Journal, January 2012)

I read the Bible often
I try to read it right
As far as I can understand
It's nothing but a burning light ("Soul of a Man" as recorded by Bruce Cockburn)
Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful.-- C.S. Lewis

I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice. --Abraham Lincoln

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend. --Martin Luther King Jr.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Are we hard-wired to resist the new and the unconfortably true?

I recognize that not everyone has the skills or the desire to relentlessly question everything.  However, for me, believing everything I hear is just not an option.  I've been asking questions pretty much since the first day I could talk.

This makes ordinary group Bible studies and Sunday school classes excruciating for me.  I cannot accept what any teacher says as "gospel" truth.  In my heart, I know that easy answers are usually wrong.  Simplistic thinking might draw crowds or sell books, but it won't bring me to the fullness of truth.

Of course, if one were to be honest, most people aren't actually interested in truth.  They want just enough information to get by, and they want that information to agree with their world view.  No matter how unrealistic or convoluted their world view might seem to others, people tend to accept what agrees with their beliefs and reject what is different.

Why are we so resistant to listening to "the other side of the argument"?  It turns out that our brains are hard-wired that way:  we automatically tune out and quickly forget what doesn't fit.  Apparently, we also have a natural tendency to adapt our beliefs to conform to our circumstances and our actions.

Thus our "intellectual discussions" are apt to turn into heated arguments, our actions are apt to be labeled as "hypocritical," and all of us are bound to appear foolish at least once in a while.  And hence, no doubt, the excellent advice from James, the brother of Christ:

...everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God (James 1:19-20, NASB).

Cognitive Dissonance, Behavior and Belief

  • Wired for Hypocrisy - an article from Newsweek on how cognitive dissonance causes people to change their beliefs

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The cost of questioning everything

I don't think I could say it better than this!

I constantly try to reinvent my sensibilities and my ideas. I enjoy some of the satisfaction that I get when I feel good about what I've done. But the process is quite lonely and quite painful.  --Vincent Gallo

Or this, because walking in obedience to a new idea of God (like Jesus did) is also costly:

"Lonely Road" by Mark Heard
(Listen now -

            Not taking note of the fools or the wise
            Being a pawn of time and chance
            Not making vows when the flood waters rise
            Is simpler than nails through your hands

            Being a slave to the sultans of grief
            Keeping the hand to the plow
            Being held captive to public belief
            Is easier than thorns through your brow

                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                That the Son of Man walks down

            Being immune to the war of the heart
            And never wondering why
            To bury the conflict deep in the dark
            Is safer than spears through your side

                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                That the Son of Man walks down

            For him who burns with a creed and a flame
            Words are as smoke on the wind
            Some kind of volatile helplessness reigns
            And can’t fill the hearts of his kin

            To go and enlighten the doomed and unwashed
            Seized with the art of sacrifice
            To carry the weight of a martyr-at-large
            Is easier than giving your life

                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                And it’s a lonely road
                That the Son of Man walks down

            Written by Mark Heard © 1990 Ideola Music